|Photograph: Ansel Adams|
They flew low. So low that they appeared to clip the tall oaks and pines lining the streets from where we first saw them. From the car, we caught sight of two mottled grey lusterless airships as we headed south on Abbott Valley. They—wide-bodied, slow-motion, thunderous-winged bullets—soared nearly side by side as they appeared from the east and throttled west over Bear Hill's ascent.
Lu looked worried, Are we going to be bombed, Mama? she asked.
What a question. But it made me think of 9/11. Of Vonnegut's Dresden. Of Pearl Harbor. Because this is how it works, I think in scenes. But my daughter doesn't have a scene like this. I don't either, not a real one, except for 9/11—which left a deep aching imprint on anyone old enough to remember—which was also the same day, the same morning, that my husband left early for Washington, D.C. out of Rhode Island's T.F. Green via Pittsburgh, and lost contact with me for a good four hours. Nothing. His flight had been grounded in Pittsburgh once it was evident that we were under terrorist attack—wireless signals dead on the idling plane.
Clearly, Tuesday's flying machines were military—similar in size to the ones that used to buzz over the lake in Maine, before Bangor International changed their flight pattern, and nothing like the small, single engine Pipers that land at the towerless North Central airport in northern Rhode Island. I'd seen North Central's asphalt runways, been there with the kids to watch the lighter, sexier planes take off and land (what to do with your children on a Thursday afternoon), a pilot gave them plastic wing pins. Its largest runway is only 5,000 by 1,000 feet. Bangor's sole runway is nearly three times that—more than two miles long.
I read somewhere that Air Force One can land on a 4,000 foot runway so long as it's done with full reverse thrust, hard brakes and full spoilers and flaps. I've no idea what that means, but it sounds violent.
No, we're not going to be bombed, Lu. It was curious though. Planes flying low enough to trigger that ducking impulse. Low enough to take out one of Providence's skyscrapers (if Providence actually had skyscrapers). And the only airport at which they could land was miles away in the opposite direction. They were too low. Prematurely low. Disturbingly low.
Only minutes after they flew from view, as we headed up Bear Hill, we caught the nose of another bus-swallowing aircraft coming from the north and flying south, right above Abbott Run. I could feel its weight. A second plane followed just behind. Now it was more than curious. It was odd. Were these the same two planes that we had just witnessed jetting west? They couldn't have changed their flight direction that quickly.
We drove to the bank, made a rapid deposit, and returned home within ten minutes. As we climbed the deck stairs to the back side of the house we heard another magnificent roar, and from the north, again, appeared a smoky plane. From the deck's vantage point, it appeared to be a cargo carrier, a heavy, beat up old junker lumbering along at low altitude, blue exhaust pluming from behind.
It was no longer odd. It was concerning, as if we were being harassed. I went out to the empty street, expecting to see neighbors peering at the sky, but no one was outside. No one. Lu followed and hugged me with worry. They're in their basements! Call the police! she begged.
I didn't feel like this was a rational thing to do. Call the police. What if we were being harassed, what if terrorists had hijacked the planes intending to use them as shrapnel? What the hell could our town's policemen possibly do? Have another donut quick, guys, it's all over.
So I called the police (truly, I'm not the sort of hysteric that calls the police every time I notice something amiss). Have you, by chance, been getting calls about low flying planes? I asked, feeling as nutty as one might feel when making such a call.
Yeah, the officer answered quickly, we have and we have no idea what's going on. NO IDEA. Sorry.
Oh, really? It's...
NO IDEA. Sorry, he said again.
We turned on the evening news. Trending topics dominated, but it was silent as to airborne assaults, which I thought ought to be a trending topic.
Who does one call for the answer to why a half dozen military planes might have crossed through town a few hundred yards above one's rooftop? I thought about this all night. Would one call the FBI? Would one call 911 (as Lu also suggested)? Maybe one calls the local airport? Or, of course!, the Department of Defense. Or does one take swift, fiery notes and sketch an outline for her first sci-fi thriller? No, that's been done.
The real questions, though, the questions that flashed before me like the Vietnamese nail salon's neon sign on a steamy summer evening is who does one call if one is actually getting bombed? What's to prevent those steel barrels from falling from the sky? Why am I even thinking about bombardment? Why do I like that name: Bombardier? It's sexy I tell you, that's why. And why are planes so sexy?
Well, not all planes. Not planes that can be something else. Not the planes flying over my house early Tuesday night—the menacing planes—shame on them for bullying us, for blackening my idea of the airship as magical machine navigating above snowy gossamer pillows, away from the mundane, to some faraway exotic dream.
Fleet Foxes (go visit their website, it's fun—click back on Fleet Foxes after you visit each link) take me back to the days when planes were just planes. When the folk music of the 1960s and 70s was just folk music, like Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon and Garfunkel.
Their May 2011 release, Helplessness Blues (click to play the title song—you can also download and share it) is stunning. Gloriously stunning. Above-the-clouds stunning. It soars.